How to Govern Nigeria

The historic change that happened with the election of General Muhammadu Buhari has hopefully set the country on a way to rethink its brand of federalism.

President Muhammadu Buhari. (GMB Volunteers)

Two issues dominated political discourse in Nigeria in 2006, the final full year of the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo (1999- 2007), the first president in the Fourth Republic: the ‘third-term agenda’ and political violence in the Niger Delta. Obasanjo’s devious attempts at extending his tenure beyond two terms were defeated by a combination of mass opposition and the opportunistic grit of his political enemies, but the violence of hostage-taking in the delta was too heedless to be fought. The militants were armed, so the state had to negotiate. One outcome of the complex negotiations was the emergence as Vice-President in 2007 of Goodluck Jonathan, formerly a professor of Zoology at the University of Port Harcourt. Inside four years, as a result of the “Doctrine of Necessity” cobbled together to resolve the constitutional crisis arising from President Umaru Yar’Adua’s demise, a man who wished for nothing higher than the deputy governorship of Bayelsa State found himself at the helms in a country where everyone has an opinion, and wields it like a warden’s rod. A man from whom little is expected dances to the music of his station.

Here is the farce that is Jonathan’s presidency:

The piercing cry of marginalization which has defined the history of the country’s oil-bearing region since independence is now little more than the murmur of a short-sighted elite operating a virulent form of internal colonialism; by presenting Jonathan as its best-foot-forward the Niger Delta has frittered immense moral and an intellectual capital; the right-wing tactics of old Nigeria, routinely deployed by the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, have eaten through the progressive fabric of the nation’s body-politic, to the extent that an alliance of North and Southwest power blocs now presents itself through the All Progressive Congress, APC, as a viable alternative, compromising progressive politics immeasurably.


In the euphoric days following the end of military rule in 1999, with Obasanjo settled into his job as president and the specter of Shari’a governmentality still in the northern horizon, I agreed to review a new, non-commercial magazine published by the Nigerian chapter of a non-governmental organization interested in environmental issues. People at this NGO expected me to provide a “formal analysis” of the magazine, commenting on the layout, design, and the content of the occasional political opinion. They also invited a friendly political activist to chair the event, and I knew right away what was afoot—with “a literary person” you didn’t want to leave things to chance.

They got the obligatory review, but the context of my commentary was broader. The general elections in February of that year had convinced me that the popular struggle for democratic change peaking during the regime of General Sani Abacha had been usurped by the same forces it had meant to drive out. Political struggle in the Niger Delta had been historically prosecuted on the highest level of personal sacrifice. Yet the global scale of the struggle also ensured that issues of life-and-death faced by the ordinary people in the Niger Delta were now a matter of administrative convenience. In his closing remarks, the chair of the occasion essentially debunked all my claims, and with a touch of bad taste (or good, depending on how one sees it), commented on the cologne on my shirt as proof of my political outlook.  I was more amused than offended.

Perhaps the bureaucratization of the struggle for environmental rights in Nigeria was inevitable.  In Western Europe and North America, environmentalism was a rationalized part of political life, and much of the material support that Nigerian activists received was meant to reinforce the liberal view of politics as pragmatic negotiations between the sovereignty of power and the sovereignty of rights. Did this understanding of non-governmental patronage anticipate the militancy of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, and other groups? What were the links between the militias and the groups that have occupied power in the South-South in the past decade and a half?

It is political naiveté to expect the swamp dwellers to forever hymn the wreck that had been their reality since Oloibiri. After all, power blocs rise and are consolidated from the resources that have impoverished the Niger Delta, the same blocs using the power thus gained to make the impoverishment a fact of life. If they wanted to live like that forever, there would be no point in struggling against the pervasively oppressive system to begin with.

Yet a close attention to the antagonism between President Jonathan and Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State in 2013, and in the historical context of the Niger Delta after 1990, revealed several things, the most disarming being the famed dictum about history repeating itself as farce. Why are those who have suffered so much due to the primitive exploitation of oil resources from the Delta so eager to continue with things as they are? Is it too much to expect that, with the balance of power in favor of the once-marginalized, greater concern for ethics would carry the day?


It is often said that President Jonathan, like his two predecessors in the Fourth Republic, is the product of a corrupt political process. Given the structural violence pervasive at all levels of society, a person of outstanding moral power could not have emerged as president in 2011. Jonathan’s political behavior during his first term indicated a below-ordinary level of a sense of responsibility, falling short of what his office demanded. Beyond his commendable rectitude in the face of a provocative open letter published by Obasanjo in February 2014, it is hard to find an instance in which the president has behaved with outstanding courage.

Nigerians expect a lot from their presidents; they expect a president to be powerful without being overbearing. The problem is that the Jonathan is an ordinary figure ruling a country of extraordinary expectations. What is expected is that he rises above the values of his milieu—negative for the most part—and become the one to cut the expectations to size. There is a problem here. Even with the best intentions, the president cannot fight above his weight. Add to this the peculiar experiments of the past twenty-five years (since the military formation of two political parties), which has led to the emergence of parties without distinguishing ideologies and of which the PDP is symptomatic. The result is a mismatch between the protocols of presidential power, civic expectations, and unpredictable events for which the president may not be held accountable but which he would accept as part of the turf if he had the right amount of political imagination.

This is why Jonathan as president hasn’t done much to demonstrate exceptional political will. The more controversial decisions of his presidency—the removal of putative petroleum subsidies in January 2012; the ghastly renaming of the University of Lagos as Moshood Abiola University in June 2012; the pardoning of former governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha; the still unaccounted-for disappearance of $20 billion in February 2014; the arms’ deal imbroglio in South Africa; the confoundingly shoddy handling of the Boko Haram menace–could have had serious consequences for Jonathan were Nigeria to be governed by transparent rules. The fuel subsidy scandal later revealed a level of corruption too high for legal probity; the failed renaming of UNILAG ran the government into a cul-de-sac, without the kind of escape route soldiers routinely created by simply shooting in the air and taking off in a cloud of dusts. Thus the president is left with only forgettable actions in the “transformational” vein. It is thus an empty PR slogan, before and during electioneering campaigns, that Jonathan’s is called the “transformational presidency.”

The president’s style is to opt for the commonplace: do the needful, stretch nothing, be seen to have done what is necessary.

Can one blame him for this? Yes, to the extent that he is an executive president and his office comes with a lot of discretionary powers. But he is an ordinary person, far from the risk-taker needing courage, loyalty or wisdom to act.


Few actions generated as much anger and indignation during the first two years of Jonathan’s tenure as the controversial pardon of his former boss, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, in April 2013. The removal of petroleum subsidy and the renaming of the University of Lagos by presidential fiat were quickly or eventually reversed because the president could not really afford to fritter his political capital on those relatively insignificant issues. The big game, second-term tenure at Aso Rock, was still at large, the more cynical of his advisers must have calculated, so why allow these civic matters to lay your trap to waste?

Having come to power against the wishes of the power bloc in the North, and not sure of continuing acceptance in the other power bloc in the Southwest, Jonathan’s best bet remained the emerging bloc called South-South, his own political base. But even that could not be taken for granted, politics being what it is, and Nigerian politics for that matter. In addition to an uncertain political climate, there was another bee in the bonnet. Henry Okah, an acknowledged leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, remained unsullied by political horse-trading.

But Okah got into trouble as soon as Jonathan got into power, following his arrest and trial for the 50th independence anniversary explosions at Eagle Square in Abuja in October 2010. Some of his statements to the court were leaked to the press, which indicated that persons close to the president had allegedly tried to blackmail him, but there was no knowing how he stood with the people in the South-South, the political base he shared with the president. Only the president and his closest advisers knew this.

Here’s a plausible scenario:

The militancy in the Niger Delta which grew out of widespread state violence in the 1990s bred an astute sense of political awakening, which MEND did a lot to institutionalize. The emergence of politicians like Jonathan, Alamieyeseigha, Peter Odili, and many others can be traced to this political awakening.

The same process explained the indispensability of this geopolitical zone to the calculations of the People’s Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2007 general elections: the Vice-Presidency had to be zoned to the South-South. Jonathan, initially deputy to Alamieyeseigha until the latter was impeached, arrested, and convicted for money laundering charges, moved swiftly from that office to the governorship, then the Vice-Presidency, until circumstances thrust him into the President’s office.

Of these figures, only Okah remained outside official politics. Whatever his current travails, he was certainly not without his own constituency. Jonathan had benefited most from the political fortunes of the region, in actual terms. His ascent to the office of the president was a historic feat, and pointed to the legitimacy of the case for the redress of the imbalances in Nigerian politics, especially as far as the Niger Delta was concerned.

On the national stage, the menace of Boko Haram and the fallout of wrangling within the ruling party seemed to be weakening the president’s hold on the party’s bridle. His desire to contest the forthcoming election was heading for a dead-end. Okah’s trial looked likely to end in at least a conviction, and if this happened without a counterbalancing development, the hold on power would be weaker still, his influence in the Delta eroded.

The rehabilitation of Alamieyeseigha came to the rescue. The former governor was reputedly influential among the leadership of the disarmed militant groups. When he returned to his base after jumping bail in 2006, he was warmly welcomed by his people. He was not a suspect in a criminal case; he was a victimized defender of their rights.

A more self-destructing politics of identity can hardly be imagined.

Postscript: March 31, 2015

Some of the best ideas that have been advanced about how to govern Nigeria as a just, inclusive and humane country, have been about federalism, the political principle in which governing power is shared between a central government and constitutive states. This is the form of government that Nigeria put into practice during the Second Republic, following the fiasco of the short-lived First, and has more or less stuck with since. I say more or less because when they’ve been able to get into power, which is not often (the Second Republic lasted four years, the Third never really took off), civilians have operated a constitution in which the ideals of federalism remain just that—ideals, and without idealism. That explains why calls for “sovereign national conference” have dogged every government, civilian or military, since 1990.

Last year, the government of Goodluck Jonathan constituted a conference that was, so the script went, aimed at responding definitively to such calls. It would be inclusive and its recommendations would be acted upon. By and large, however, the members were handpicked by the government, and it seemed to me (at least) like a nefarious form of patronage—with the forthcoming elections in view. In the run up to the elections, supporters of (now) out-going president had many field days proclaiming that talkfest as a supreme achievement.

But there was a problem: the most fulsome of these songs of praise rested on ideas of federalism as indistinguishable from regionalism. The federal principle was intended to address issues of inequality among the regions of the country, but when the People’s Democratic Party, the ruling party post-1999, made “zoning-formula” its primary article of faith, it turned what was an aspirant principle into fate. In the writings of staunch federalists like Obafemi Awolowo and Ken Saro-Wiwa, federalism is hobbled by the inchoate thought, a debatable proposition, that a presidential aspirant will come from a region! The constitutional fact, however, is that Nigeria is made up of states, not regions. It is still a long way to that cherished day when this flawed understanding of federalism will go the way of all junk. But the historic change that happened with the election of General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) has hopefully set the country on that way.

Just hope, though: what else is there for those who can feed forever on cynicism?

  • This essay originally appeared in the Africa is a Country ebook, Nigeria: What is to be done? published before the elections. The postscript was added afterwards.

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